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Distressing animation captures a whale’s struggle to avoid ship strikes

One sad blue dot

A blue whale’s tail above the water.
Photo by Jeff Gritchen / Digital First Media / Orange County Register via Getty Images

An eye-catching animation ricocheted across Twitter this week, showing the struggles of a single blue whale as it tried to avoid crowds of shipping vessels in the Corcovado Gulf. The animation accompanied a study published in the journal Nature this week examining the overlapping paths of ships and blue whales in the waters off Chilean Patagonia.

Whales, including the one featured in the video, were tagged and tracked for up to three months as they moved through the gulf. The tracking data was then compared against vessel traffic patterns from a Chilean database. The scientists say their results point to a need for more protective measures, including speed regulations, to prevent ships from hitting whales in the area.

The visualization of a little blue dot zigzagging around the congested gulf is heartbreaking on its own, but it only offers “a glimpse of the density of vessels whales are exposed to,” according to Luis Bedriñana Romano, one of the authors of the study. There’s only one whale and a few boats accounted for, and the scale makes it hard to precisely understand the whale’s proximity to any vessels. But even without a full picture of just how many ships are crossing the gulf at any given time, it’s not hard to imagine a whale being struck.

Shipping and commercial fishing vessels are a consistent danger for aquatic wildlife. Collisions between whales and ships traveling at high speeds lead to serious, sometimes fatal, injuries. It’s difficult to quantify ship strikes because they often go unreported, according to the International Whaling Commission.

Any deaths by collision are notable for the blue whale, which is still an endangered species after decades of whaling severely whittled down its population. “[The Eastern South Pacific] blue whale population recovery might be jeopardized by the loss of even a few individuals a year,” says the study.